Lower East Side Artists Were Not Immigrants

While it might be tempting to view this current situation as merely the latest development in an unchanging immigrant history of the Lower East Side, there are fundamental differences between the past and the present. The experience of European immigrants was one of gradual assimilation; for today’s minorities, it is one of attrition. Any attempt to equate these experiences would result in profound distortions. The immigrants admitted to this country from the mid-nineteenth century to the close of the First World War belonged to a displaced, “floating” labor force following capital, which had itself emigrated to the New World. Because most of these European immigrants were allowed a niche either in the closed circuitry of the immigrant economy or in the city’s burgeoning manufacturing industry, there were opportunities for many eventually to move out of the tenements and beyond the borders of the Lower East Side. The present inhabitants of the area have no equivalent role to play in today’s economy, and therefore “upward mobility” is not the reason that fifteen percent of the residents left the neighborhood between 1970 and 1980. The exodus was due instead to arson and the wholesale abandonment of buildings by landlords.

To portray artists as the victims of gentrification is to mock the plight of the neighborhood’s real victims. This is made especially clear by the display of wealth. At this moment in history artists cannot be exempted from responsibility. According to Carol Watson, the best thing the artists of this city can do for the people of the Lower East Side is to go elsewhere. She realizes, however, that the hardest thing to ask individuals is not to act in their own best interest. Nonetheless, they need to decide whether or not they want to be part of a process that destroys people’s lives. “People with choices,” she says, “should choose not to move to the Lower East Side.”

Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan, “The Fine Art of Gentrification,” THE PORTABLE LOWER EAST SIDE, Volume 4, Number 1, Spring 1987, 22 Jan. 2013 #http://www.abcnorio.org/about/history/fine_art.html

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